ABC — always be Cam. That was The Bachelorette contestant Cam Ayala's catchphrase. It’s no coincidence that the next letter in the alphabet is D, for drama, which seemed to be Ayala’s forte during his time on the show. He disrupted dates and had literal chicken nuggets thrown at him. (FYI: Spoilers below.)
But it turned out Ayala was a more complicated character than some of us thought. Before being eliminated at last week’s rose ceremony, he revealed to Bachelorette Hannah Brown that he had a chronic health issue, called Lymphedema, which he described on the show as a “non-curable condition that is often misdiagnosed and completely understudied by medical professionals." In a dramatic scene, Ayala confided in Hannah about some of the complications that come with the condition, like swelling and multiple surgeries. He revealed that he almost had to have his leg amputated.
On the show, details about Cam's condition didn't get much air time beyond this initial confession. It was overshadowed when another contestant, Mike, told Hannah that Ayala only told her about the condition to get a “pity rose” so he wouldn’t be sent home. It's a shame because Ayala is right that awareness about lymphedema is pretty low.
Lymphedema is a chronic health condition that that causes swelling in arms and legs due to blockages that develop in the body's lymphatic system, Dr. Emily Iker, the Director of Lymphedema Center in Santa Monica, explained to Refinery29 previously. There are two kinds of lymphedema: Secondary, which often occurs as a complication following cancer treatment (for example, treatment for breast cancer can often damage lymph nodes). And primary (the one Ayala has), which is rare, inherited, and sometimes cause by conditions such as Milroy's disease, which causes lymph nodes to form abnormally, according to Mayo Clinic.
We caught up with Cam after he was cut from the show last week. After rejecting my initial request for comment, (no hard feelings, he just couldn't talk while he was still on the show), Cam texted me a rose emoji (really) Wednesday, and we set up a time to talk about lymphedema, pity roses, and of course, his catch phrase. Keep reading for a our full conversation, below.
On the show, Mike said you told Hannah about your condition because you wanted a “pity rose.” Is that why you did it?
"I've never been the type to complain about my condition or ask for pity or sympathy from anybody. I just wanted to be a strong fighter and be treated normally like everybody else in this world. I've been dealing with lymphedema since I was 12 years old, andI've been pretty silent about it. I never told a lot of my basketball coaches because I didn't want special treatment from them. I just wanted to be treated like any other player on my team. For me, I had such a strong work ethic. I mean, I had to work three or four times just as hard as all the other guys, just to make average. But I wanted to go above and beyond. I wanted to be a leader on my team. So that just really instilled a very strong work ethic in my life at a young age of 12. Knowing that nothing is guaranteed and you're going to have to work for it."
So, why did you tell her?
"One reason why I was telling Hannah, was I wanted to say: 'Look, I know that this is a show. But in reality, if it's going to be you and I at the end of this, and we're going to be husband and wife, and we're exchanging vows of in sickness and in health.' I need to know that you actually mean that and can handle what's unknown for me. Because there's a lot of strong guys in the house, but their strength is different than my strength. I've endured a lot of physical and emotional pain from having this condition and these surgeries.
"So, that whole “pity rose” thing— a) I never even said pity rose. But b) the fact that it was even put into her ear in the first place was probably — no, it was definitely — the most disheartening experience through my whole journey on The Bachelorette."
"It was also about transparency. I'm not oblivious to know that further down the line in the show that there can be group dates where things get a little bit more physical. Hannah being a big football fan and just an active person, I assume that if I was given a rose, and moving forward in the process that I could potentially be on one of these group dates where the guys got physical. I would have much rather told her up front and now. If I continued on the show, and went on a physical date, and then all of a sudden, I'm pulling her to the side, like: 'Oh hey. I can't do this date with you today because I have this condition." To me, that would've been a little bit more calculated and manipulative, as they accused me of being, rather than telling her when I did."
You said on the show that lymphedema has impacted your previous relationships, and that was part of why you told her. Can you talk about how living with a chronic condition can impact your relationships?
"My condition and the 13 surgeries that I had over the course of four years took a major toll on my dating life. I had a few serious girlfriends. They're great women, but the relationships didn't work out. A big part of that was, when you're in and out of the hospital and you're basically bed-rested, you can’t live this fun active lifestyle with your significant other. Going out to the bars or parties or going on trips. I couldn't do that. When you're recovering from surgery and you're on pain medication, you become a different person. For me, it just made me very lethargic and that's not the upbeat energetic personality that I typically am."
I understand last week you became an ambassador for the Lymphatic Education & Research Network. So it’s cool you get to help people with the condition. Why is that important to you, considering the way lymphedema has impacted your life?
"Well, there’s no cure for lymphedema currently. I mean for me, you know lymphedema does not define me. I want to help define lymphedema. For as much as it has taken away from my life, losing jobs, promotions, losing my physique for a while, and not being able to compete in athletics. And then the impact it has had on my past relationships and losing friendships over it. All of the emotional, physical, and even financial burdens. Now is my chance and my opportunity and my time to give back to the lymphedema community and help younger kids or even people who are older than me who feel like they're helpless."
How did you manage your lymphedema and your mental health in the Bachelorette mansion?
"I don't think my mental health was too skewed. I mean, I definitely would get a little antsy from time to time because, you know, lots of testosterone in the house and the whole nature of the environment of 30 guys trying to earn the affection and feelings from one woman. That's just a hostile environment in general. I mean, not hostile in the sense that I was worried and threatened, [or] that I was unsafe. But I knew that guys were going to be willing to do whatever it took to get ahold of Hannah. For me, I didn't feel too threatened.
How did the show change your life?
"I know I got eliminated sooner than I was hoping to. But I have been able to help several lymphedema patients. Not just pediatric ones that have primary lymphedema, but also adults who, especially adult males that have been suffering in silence. Lymphedema kind of gets put in this category as a condition that only females have. Females that have had breast cancer. So, men that have had it in their genital area and any of their limbs have been kind of suffering in silence and kind of feeling like a reject in a sense. I've actually had over 20 lymphedema patients in the last three days contact me just looking for advice for different brands of compression pumps, and things like that. All in all, it's been a very positive and rewarding aftermath."
I have to ask about the catchphrase — “ABC, always be Cam.”
"I've always been one who loves creative, cheesy lines or puns or jokes like that. It's funny, 'cause after watching the show, my friends are like, 'Dude, you've never said ABC, always be Cam.' I came up with it in one of the mansion interviews, and probably said it a little too much. ABC, Always Be Cam. Really to me that just means being myself. A lot of people when they get in that environment and the cameras start going, they become some persona or a character. But for me it was just all about just being myself. Myself is someone who does not talk in the third person, so that was kind of ironic that my tagline became something that is not me — but it is about me being me."
Is there one piece of advice you want to pass on to lymphedema patients?
A piece of advice is stay positive. It's something that you're going to have to live with. If you take your condition by the reins and do the compressions, and do the therapy that you need to maintain the swelling, then you're going to be better off. A good friend of mine, his father was a preacher. He used to say: 'The city of happiness is located in the state of mind.'"
This interview has been edited and condensed for length.